Fan replied at once, asking him to send the van next day at noon to Mile End. Then she telegraphed to the people of the house to have the rooms ready for them on the morrow, and also wrote to Constance to inform her of the arrangements that had been made; and the rest of the day was spent in preparing for her sojourn in the country.
In the evening she went to Dawson Place to see and say good-bye to her friend. Mary was at home, and glad to see her.
"My dear Fan," she said, embracing the girl, "I have had two or three callers this evening, and was not at home to them only because I thought you might turn up, and I wished to have you all to myself for a little while before you leave. Goodness only knows when we shall meet again!"
"Why, Mary, are you thinking of going away for a long time? I hope not."
"Well, I don't know what I'm thinking of. Of course it's very disgusting and unnatural to be in London at this time of the year; but the worst of the matter is, I had hoped to get you to go somewhere with me. But now this affair has completely thrown me out. Have you made your arrangements?"
"Yes, I got the letter I expected this morning, and it explains everything. You had better read it for yourself."
Mary pushed the letter back with an indignant gesture.
"Oh, very well," returned Fan, not greatly disconcerted. "Then I suppose I can read it to you, as it tells just what arrangements have been made."
The other frowned but said nothing, and Fan proceeded to read the letter. Mary made no remark on its contents; but when she went on to speak of other things, there was no trace of displeasure in her voice. They were together until about ten o'clock, and then, after taking some refreshment, Fan rose to go. But the parting was not to be a hurried one; her friend embraced and clung to her with more than her usual warmth.
"Mary dear," said Fan, bending back her head so as to look into her friend's face, "you were very angry with me yesterday, but to-day—now you love me as much as you ever did. Is it not so?"
"Yes, Fan, I think I love you more to-night than ever. I know I cling to you more and seem afraid to lose you from my sight. But you must not get any false ideas into your head."
"To prevent that, Mary, you must tell me why you cling to me to-night?"
"Because—Fan, is it necessary that I should tell you something which I have a dim, vague idea that you already know? Is it known to you, dear girl, that in all our hearts there are things our lips refuse to speak, even to those who are nearest and dearest to our souls? Did you feel that, Fan, when you came to me again, after so long a time, and told me all—all that had befallen you since our parting?"
Fan reddened, but her lips remained closed.
"That which my lips refuse to speak you cannot know," continued Mary; "but there is another simple reason I can give you. I cling to you because you are going away to be with people I am not in sympathy with. As far as giving poor miserable Merton a chance to live, I dare say you are doing only what is right, but——"
Fan stopped her mouth. "You shall say no more, Mary. Long, long ago you thought that because I and Constance were friends I could not have the same feeling I had had for you. Oh, what a mistake you made! Nothing, nothing could ever make you less dear to me. Even if you should break with me again and refuse to see me—"
"And that is what I fear, Fan; I really do fear it, when it is actually in your heart to get me to forgive things which it would be unnatural and shameful to forgive. I must warn you again, Fan, if you cannot pluck that thought out of your heart, if I cannot have you without that man's existence being constantly brought to my mind, that there will be a fatal rupture between us, and that it will never be healed."
Fan drew back a little and looked with a strange, questioning gaze into her friend's face; but Mary, for once, instead of boldly meeting the look, dropped her eyes and reddened a little.
"There will never, never be any rupture, Mary. If you were to shut your door against me, I would come and sit down on the doorstep, which I once—"
"Be quiet!" exclaimed Mary, with sudden passion. "How can you have the courage to speak of such things! The little consideration! If your memory of the past is so faithful—so—so unforgetting, I dare say you can remember only too well that I once—"
"You must be quiet now," said Fan, stopping her friend's mouth with her hand for the second time, and with a strange little laugh that was half sob. "I only remember, Mary darling, that I was homeless, hungry, in rags, and that you took me in, and were friend and sister and mother to me. Promise, promise that you will never quarrel with me."
"Never, Fan—unless you, with your wild altruism, drive me to it."
Fan went home, wondering all the way what her wild altruism was, ashamed of her ignorance. She looked in her dictionary, but it was an old cheap one, and the strange word was not in it. Perhaps Mary had coined it. As to that she would consult Constance, who knew everything.
Miss Starbrow did not leave London after all, but day followed day only to find her in the same unsettled mind as at first. Having no one else to quarrel with, she quarrelled with and mocked at herself. "I shall wait till the heats are over," she said, "and then stay on to see the end of the November fogs; then I can go north to winter at Aberdeen or some such delightful place." But these late London days, while her mind was in this unsatisfactory state, studying to deceive itself, had one great pleasure —the letters which came at intervals of two or three days from her loved friend. Even to her eyes they looked beautiful. The girl of the period, when she writes to her friend, usually dips the handle of her sunshade in a basin of ink, and scrawls characters monstrous in size and form, an insult to the paper-maker's art and shocking to man's aesthetic feelings. Now from the first Fan had spontaneously written a small hand, with fine web-like lines and flourishes, which gave it a very curious and delicate appearance; for, unlike the sloping prim Italian hand, it was all irregular, and the longer curves and strokes crossed and recrossed through words above and beneath, so that, while easy enough to read, at first sight it looked less like writing than an intricate pattern on the paper, as if a score of polar gnats had been figure-skating on the surface with inked skates. To her complaint that she was not clever, not musical, like other girls, Mary had once said:
"Ah, yes; all your cleverness and originality has gone into your handwriting."
"It is such a comfort, such a pleasure," said Fan in one of her letters, "to have you to write to and put Mary—Mary—Mary twenty times over in a single letter, wondering whether it gives you the same pleasure to see your name written by me as you often say it is to hear it from my lips. Do you remember that when I promised to write everything you sneered and told me not to forget to make the usual mental reservations? That is the way you always talk to me, Mary; but I make no reservation, I tell you everything, really and truly—everything I see and hear and think. I know very well that Constance will never tell me any of her secrets—that she will never open her heart to anyone, as one friend does to another, except her husband; so that it was quite safe for me to make you that promise."
Again she wrote: "For some hidden reason Constance consented very reluctantly to take Merton out of town, and I feel convinced that it was not on account of the risk there would be in moving him, nor because they were too poor to move away from Mile End. There was some other reason, and I feel pretty sure that if the proposal had come from some other person, even a stranger, instead of from me, it would not have given the same feeling. That it should give her pain was a surprise to me, and has puzzled me a great deal, because I know that Constance loves me as much as she ever did, and that she would gladly do as much and more for me if it were in her power at any time. Perhaps she thinks, poor Constance, that when she and her husband suddenly went away from Netting Hill and left no address, and never wrote to me again, although she knew that I had no other friend in London at that time, that she had treated me badly. Once or twice, since we have been together here, she has mentioned that going away, so sadly, almost with tears, speaking as if circumstances had compelled her to act unkindly, but without giving any explanation. I do not believe, I cannot believe, she left me in that way of her own will; I can only guess the reason, but shall probably never really know; but I feel that this has brought a shadow into our friendship, and that while we are as dear as ever to each other, we both feel that there is something that keeps us apart."
Another letter spoke more particularly of Merton: "I am sure you would like to know what I think of him now, after living under the same roof for the first time, and seeing so much of him every day. I cannot say what I think of him. As a rule he is out in the garden after eleven o'clock; and then he sends Constance away. 'You have had enough of me now,' he says, 'and if I wish to talk, I can talk to Fan—she is a good listener.' This reminds me of one thing which is a continual vexation to me. He does not seem to appreciate her properly. He does not believe, I think, that she has any talent, or, at any rate, anything worthy of being called talent compared with his own. Just fancy, she is usually up all night, fearing to sleep lest he should need something; and then when he comes out, and is made comfortable on the garden-seat, he tells her to go and have an hour if she likes at her 'idyllic pastimes,' as he calls her writing; and if he mentions her literary work at all, he speaks of it just as another person would of a little piece of crochet-work or netting, or something of that sort.
"After she goes in he talks to me, for an hour sometimes, and when it is over I always feel that I am very little wiser, and what he has said comes back to me in such an indistinct or disconnected way that it would be impossible for me to set it down on paper. I do wish, Mary, that you could come and sit next to me—invisible to him, I mean—and listen for half an hour, and then tell me what it all means."
Mary laughed. "Tell you, sweet simple child? I wish Fan, that you could come here and sit down next to me for half an hour and read out a chapter from Alice in Wonderland, and then tell me what it all means. It was Sir Isaac Newton, I think, who said of poetry that it was a 'beautiful kind of nonsense'; at all events, if he did not say it he thought it, being a scientific man. And that is the best description I can give of Merton's talk. That's his merit, his one art, which he has cultivated and is proficient in. He reminds me of those street performers who swallow match-boxes and tie themselves up with fifty knots and then wriggle out of the rope, and keep a dozen plates, balls, and knives and forks all flying about at one time in the air. The mystery is how a woman like his wife—who is certainly clever, judging from the sketches I have read, and beautiful, as I have good reason to remember—should have thrown herself away on such a charlatan. Love is blind, they say, but I never imagined it to be quite so blind as that!"
Here Miss Starbrow suddenly remembered the case of another woman, also clever and beautiful; and with a scornful glance at her own image in the glass, she remarked, "Thou fool, first pluck the beam out of thine own eye!"
Then she returned to the letter: "Another thing that seems strange to me is his cheerfulness, for he is really very bad, and Constance is in great fear lest his cough should bring on consumption; and it is sometimes so violent that it frightens me to hear it. Yet he is always so lively and even gay, and sometimes laughs like a child at the things he says himself; and I sometimes know from the way Constance receives them that they can't be very amusing, for I do not often see the point myself. He firmly believes that he will soon throw his illness off, and that when he is well he will do great things. The world, he says, knows nothing of its greatest men, and he will be satisfied to be an obscurity, even a laughing-stock, for the next thirty or thirty-five years. But when he is old, and has a beard, like Darwin's, covering his breast and whiter than snow, then his name will be great on the earth. Then it will be said that of all leaders of men he is greatest; for whereas others led men into a barren wilderness without end, to be destroyed therein by dragons and men-eating monsters, he led them back to that path which they in their blind eager hurry had missed, and by which alone the Promised Land could be reached.
"Perhaps you will think, Mary, from my telling you all this, that I am beginning to change my mind about him, that I am beginning to think that there is something more in him than in others, and that it will all come out some day. But it would be a mistake; what I have always thought I think still."
"Sensible girl," said Mary, putting the letter down with a smile.
And thus did these two not infallible women, seeing that which appeared on the surface—empty quick—vanishing froth and iridescent bubbles—pass judgment on Merton Chance.
One afternoon, coming in from a walk, Mary found a letter from Fan on the hall table, and taking it up was startled to see a superfluous black seal over the fastening. Guessing the news it contained, she carried it up to her bedroom before opening it. "It is all over," the letter ran; "Merton died this morning, and it was so unexpected, so terribly sudden; and I was with him at the last moment. How shall I tell you about it? It is anguish to think of it, and yet think of it I must, and of nothing else; and now at ten o'clock at night I feel that I cannot rest until I have described it all to you, and imagined what you will feel and say to- morrow when you read my letter.
"For the last two or three days he had seemed so much better; but this morning after breakfasting he coughed violently for a long time, and seemed so shaken after it that we tried to persuade him not to go out. But he would not be persuaded; and it was such a lovely morning, he said, and would do him good; and he felt more hopeful and happy than ever—a sure sign that he had reached the turning-point and was already on the way to recovery. So we came out, he leaning on our arms, to a garden-seat under the trees at the end of a walk, quite near to the house. When he had settled himself comfortably on the seat with some rugs and cushions we had got with us, he said, 'Now, Connie, you can go back if you like and leave me to talk to Fan. She is our guardian angel, and will watch over me, and keep away all ugly phantoms and crawling many-legged things —spiders, slugs, and caterpillars. And I shall repay her angelic guardianship with wise, instructive speech.'
"'But an angel looks for no instruction—no reward,' said Constance.
"'Not so,' he replied. 'An angel is not above being taught even by a creature of earth. And in Fan there is one thing lacking, angel though she be, and this I shall point out to her. I can find no mysticism in her: what she knows she knows, and with the unknowable, which may yet be known, she concerns herself not. Who shall say of the seed I scatter that it will not germinate in this fair garden without weeds and tares, and strike root and blossom at last? For why should she not be a mystic like others?'
"Constance laughed and answered, 'Can an angel be a mystic?'
"'Yes, certainly,' he said. 'An angel need not necessarily be a mystic, else Fan were no angel, but even to angels it adds something. It is not that splendour of virtue and immortality which makes their faces shine like lightning and gives whiteness to their raiment; but it is the rainbow tint on their wings, the spiritual melody which they eternally make, which the old masters symbolised by placing harps and divers strange instruments in their hands—that melody which faintly rises even from our own earthly hearts.'
"Constance smiled and looked at me—at the white dress I had on—shall I ever wear white again?—and answered that she had first liked me in white, and thought it suited me best, and would have to see the rainbow tints before saying that they would be an improvement.
"Then she went back to the house, and from the end of the walk turned round and gave us a smile, and Merton threw her a kiss.
"Then he turned to me and said, 'Fan, do you hear that robin—that little mystic robin-redbreast? Listen, he will sing again in less than twenty seconds.' And almost before he had finished speaking, while I was looking at him, a change came over him, and his face was of the colour of ashes; and he said, with a kind of moan and so low that I could scarcely catch the last words, 'Oh, this is cruel, cruel!' And almost at the same moment there came a rush of blood from his mouth, and he started forward and would have fallen to the ground had I not caught him and held him in my arms. I called to Constance, over and over again, but she did not hear me—no one in the house heard me. Oh, how horrible it was—for I knew that he was dying—to hear the sounds of the house, voices talking and the maid singing, and a boy whistling not far off, and to call and call and not be heard! Then a dreadful faintness came over me, and I could call no more; I shivered like a leaf and closed my eyes, and my heart seemed to stand still, and still I held him, his head on my breast—held him so that he did not fall. Then at last I was able to call again, and someone must have heard, for in a few moments I saw Constance coming along the walk running with all her speed, and the others following. But I knew that he was already dead, for he had grown quite still, and his clenched hand opened and dropped like a piece of lead on my knee.
"After that I only remember that Constance was kneeling before him, calling out so pitifully, 'Oh, Merton, my darling, what is it? Merton, Merton, speak to me—speak to me—one word, only one word!' Then I fainted. When I recovered my senses I was lying on a sofa in the house, with some of them round me doing what they could for me; and they told me that they had sent for a doctor, and that Merton was dead.
"But how shall I tell you about Constance? I have done nothing but cry all day, partly from grief, and partly from a kind of nervous terror which makes me imagine that I am still covered with those red stains, although I took off all my things, even my shoes and stockings, and made the servant-girl take them away out of my sight. But she does not shed a tear, and is so quiet, occupied all the time arranging everything about the corpse. And there is such a still, desolate look on her face; her eyes seem to have lost all their sweetness; I am afraid to speak to her— afraid that if I should attempt to speak one word of comfort she would look at me almost with hatred. This afternoon I was in the room where they have laid him, and he looked so different, younger, and his face so much clearer than it has been looking, that it reminded me of the past and of the first time I saw him, when he spoke so gently to me at Dawson Place, and asked me to look up to show my eyes to him. I could not restrain my sobs. And at last Constance said, 'Fan, if you go on in this way you will make me cry for very sympathy.' I could not bear it and left the room. It was so strange for her to say that! Perhaps I am wrong to think it, but I almost believe from her tone and expression that all her love for me has turned to bitterness because I, and not she, was with him at the end, and heard his last word, and held him in my arms when he died.
"She has refused to sleep in my room, and now that the whole house is quiet I am almost terrified at being alone, and to think that I must spend the night by myself. I know that if I sleep I shall start up from some dreadful dream, that I shall feel something on my hands, after so many washings, and shall think of that last look on his ashen face, and his last bitter words when he knew that the end had so suddenly come to him. I wish, I wish, Mary, that I had you with me to-night, that I could rest with your arms about me, to gain strength with your strength, for you are so strong and brave, I so weak and cowardly. But I am alone in my room, and can only try to persuade myself that you are thinking of me, that when you sleep you will be with me in your dreams."
Having finished reading the letter, Mary covered her eyes with her hand and cried to herself quietly for a while. Cried for despised Merton Chance; and remembered, no longer with mocking laughter, some fragments of the "beautiful nonsense" which he had spoken to her in bygone days. For in that bright sunshine of the late summer, among the garden trees, the Black Angel had come without warning to him, and with one swift stroke of his weapon had laid him, with all his dreams and delusions, in the dust; and its tragic ending had given a new dignity, a touch of mournful glory, and something of mystery, to the vain and wasted life.
After a while, drying her eyes, she rose and went out again, and in Westbourne Grove ordered a wreath for Merton's coffin, and instructed the florist to send it on the following day to the house of mourning.
That mention of her first meeting with Merton in the girl's letter had brought up the past very vividly to Mary's mind; at night, after partially undressing, as she sat combing out her dark hair before the glass, she thought of the old days when Fan had combed it for her, and of her strange mixed feelings, when she had loved the poor girl she had rescued from misery, and had studied to hide the feeling, being ashamed of it, and at the same time had scorned herself for feeling shame—for being not different from others in spite of her better instincts and affected independence of a social code meant for meaner slavish natures. How well she remembered that evening when Merton had amused her with his pretty paradoxes about women not being reasonable beings, and had come back later to make her an offer of marriage; and how before going to bed she had looked at herself in the glass, proud of her beauty and strength and independence, and had laughed scornfully and said that to no Merton Chance would she give her hand; but that to one who, although stained with vice, had strength of character, and loved her with a true and not a sham love, she might one day give it. And thus thinking the blood rushed to her face and dyed it red; even her neck, shoulders, and bosom changed from ivory white to bright rose, and she turned away, startled and ashamed at seeing her own shame so vividly imaged before her. And moving to the bedside, while all that rich colour faded away, she dropped languidly into a chair, and throwing her white arms over the coverlid, laid her cheek on them with a strange self-abandonment, "Do you call me strong and brave, Fan?" she murmured sadly. "Ah, poor child, what a mistake! I am the weak and cowardly one, since I dare not tell you this shameful secret, and ask you to save me. Oh, how falsely I put it to you when I said that there are things in every heart which cannot be told, even to the nearest and dearest! when I hinted to you that you had not told me all the story of your acquaintance with Arthur Eden. That which you kept back was his secret as well as your. This is mine, only mine, and I have no courage to tell you that you are only working my ruin—that the heart you are trying to soften has no healthy hardness in it. I shall never tell you. Only to one being in the whole world could I tell it—to my brother Tom. But to think of him is futile; for I shall keep my word, and never address him again unless he first begs my forgiveness for insulting me at Ravenna, when he called me a demon. Never, never, and he will not do that, and there is no hope of help from him. You shall know the result of your work one day, Fan, and how placable this heart is. And it will perhaps grieve you when you know that your own words, your own action, gave me back this sickness of the soul— this old disease which had still some living rootlet left in me when I thought myself well and safe at last. How glad I shall be to see you again, Fan! And you will not know that under that open healthy gladness there will be another gladness, secret and base. That I shall eagerly listen again to hear the name my false lips forbade you to speak—to hear it spoken with some sweet word of praise. And in a little while I shall sink lower, and be glad to remember that my courage was so small; and lower still, and give, reluctantly and with many protests, the forgiveness which will prove to you—poor innocent child!—that I have a very noble spirit in me. How sweet it is to think of it, and how I loathe myself for the thought! And I know what the end will be. I shall gain my desire, but my gain will be small and my loss too great to be measured. And then farewell to you, Fan, for ever; for I shall never have the courage to look into your eyes again, and the pure soul that is in them. I shall be a coward still. Just as all that is weak and unworthy in me makes me a coward now, so whatever there is that is good in me will make me a coward then."
A couple of days after the funeral Fan, accompanied by her friend, returned to London, and the rooms she had occupied in Quebec Street. Fortunately for her young lodger's peace of mind, now less inclined for delicate feeding than ever, Mrs. Fay had gone off on her annual holiday. Not that her health required change of air, nor because she took any delight in the sublime and beautiful as seen in the ocean and nature generally, but because it was a great pleasure to her to taste of many strange dishes, and criticise mentally and gloat over the abominable messes which other lodging—and boarding-house keepers are accustomed to put before their unhappy guests. And as the woman left in charge of the establishment knew not Francatelli, and never rose above the rude simplicity of "plain" cookery—depressing word!—and was only too glad when nothing was required beyond the homely familiar chop, with a vegetable spoiled in the usual way, dinner at Quebec Street, if no longer a pleasure, was not a burden.
That strange quietude, tearless and repellent, concerning which Fan had spoken in her letter, still had possession of Constance. But it was not the quietude experienced by the overwrought spirit when the struggle is over, and the reaction comes—the healing apathy which nature sometimes gives to the afflicted. It was not that, nor anything like it. The struggle had been prolonged and severe; he was gone in whom all her hopes and affections had been centred, and life seemed colourless without him; but she knew that it would not always be so, that the time would come when she would again take pleasure in her work, when the applause of other lips than those now cold would seem sweet to her. The quietude was only on the surface; under it smouldered a sullen fire of rebellion and animosity against God and man, because Merton had perished and had not lived to justify his existence; and if the thought ever entered her soul —and how often it was there to torture her!—that the world had judged him rightly and she falsely, it only served to increase her secret bitterness.
When spoken to by those around her, she would converse, unsmilingly, neither sad nor cheerful, with but slight interest in the subject started; it was plain to see that she preferred to be left alone, even by her two dearest friends, Fan and the curate, who had attended the funeral and had come afterwards two or three times to see her. After a few days Fan had proposed moving to town, and Constance had at once consented. In her present frame of mind the solitude of London seemed preferable to that of the country. For two or three days Fan almost feared that the move had been a mistake; for now Constance spent more time than ever in silence and seclusion, never going out of the house, and remaining most of the time in her own room. Even when they were together she would sit silent and apathetic unless forced to talk; and the effect was that Fan grew more and more reluctant to address her, although her heart was overcharged with its unexpressed love and sympathy. Only once, a few days after their return to town, did Constance give way to her poignant feelings, and that was on the occasion of a visit from Mr. Northcott to their rooms. She saw him reluctantly, and was strangely cold and irresponsive in her manner, and as it quickly discouraged him when his kindly efforts met with no appreciation, the conversation they had was soon over. When taking his leave he spoke a few kind sympathetic words to her, to which she made no reply, but her hand trembled in his, and she averted her face. Not that she had tears to hide; on the contrary, it seemed to Fan, who was watching her face, that the rising colour and brightening eyes expressed something like resentment at the words he had spoken. When he had gone she remained standing in the middle of the room, but presently glancing up and encountering her friend's eyes fixed wonderingly on her face, she turned away, and dropping into a chair burst into a passion of tears.
Fan moved to her side. "Dear Constance," she said, putting a hand on the other's shoulder, "it is better to cry than to be as you have been all these days."
But Constance, mastering her sobs with a great effort, rose to her feet and put her friend's hand aside.
"Do you think tears are a relief to me?" she said with bitterness. "You are mistaken. They are caused by his words—his pretended grief and sympathy with me for what he calls my great loss. But; I know that he never understood and never appreciated my husband—I know that in his heart of hearts he thinks, as you think, Fan, that my loss is a gain. I understood him as you and Harold never could. You knew only his weakness, which he would have outgrown, not the hidden strength behind it. I know what I have lost, and prefer to be left alone, and to hear no condolences from anyone." Then, bursting into tears again, she left the room.
This was unspeakably painful to Fan—chiefly because the words Constance had spoken were true. They were cruel words to come from her friend's lips, but she considered that they had been spoken hastily, in a sudden passion of grief, and she felt no resentment, and only hoped that in time kindlier feelings would prevail. Her manner lost nothing of its loving gentleness, but she no longer tried to persuade Constance to go out with her; it was best, she thought, to obey her wish and leave her alone. She herself, loving exercise, and taking an inexhaustible delight in the life and movement of the streets, spent more time than ever out of doors. Her walks almost invariably ended in Hyde Park, where she would sit and rest for half an hour under the grateful shade of the elms and limes; and then, coming out into the Bayswater Road, she would stand irresolute, or walk on for a little distance into Oxford Street, with downcast eyes and with slower and slower steps. For at home there would be Constance, sitting solitary in her room and indisposed for any communion except that with her own sorrow-burdened heart; while on the other hand, within a few minutes' drive, there was Dawson Place—bright with flowers and pleasant memories—and above all, Mary, who was always glad to see her, and would perhaps be wishing for her and expecting her even now. And while considering, hesitating, the welcome tingling "Keb!" uttered sharp and clear like the cry of some wild animal, would startle her. For that principal league-long thoroughfare of London is "always peopled with a great multitude of"—no, not "vanities," certainly not! but loitering hansoms, and cabby's sharp eye is quick to spot a person hesitating where to go (and able to pay for a ride), as the trained rapacious eye of the hawk is to spy out a wounded or sickly bird. Then the swift wheels would be drawn up in tempting proximity to the kerb, and after a moment's hesitation Fan would say "Dawson Place," and step inside, and in less than twenty minutes she would be in her friend's arms.
These flying improvised visits to her friend were very dear to her, and always ended with the promise given to repeat the visit very soon— "perhaps to-morrow"; then she would hurry home, feeling a little guilty at her own happiness while poor Constance was so lonely and so unhappy.
But one day there seemed to be a change for the better. Constance talked with Fan, for some time, asking questions about Miss Starbrow, of the books she had been reading, and showing a return of interest in life. When she was about to leave the room Fan came to her side and put an arm round her neck.
"Constance," she said, "I have been waiting anxiously to ask you when you are going to begin your sketches again? I think—I'm sure it would be good for you if you could write a little every day."
Constance cast down her eyes and reflected for a few moments.
"I could never take that up again," she said.
"I am so sorry," was all that Fan could say in reply, and then the other without more words left her.
But in the evening she returned to the subject of her own accord.
"Fan, dear," she said, "I must ask your forgiveness for the way I have acted towards you since we have been here together. It would not have been strange if you had resented it—if you had judged me ungrateful. But you never changed; your patience was so great. And now that he has gone you are more to me than ever. Not only because you have acted towards me like a very dear sister, but also because you did that for him which I was powerless to do. Your taking us away out of that hot place made his last days easier and more peaceful. And you were with him at the last, Fan. Now I can speak of that—I must speak of it! Death seemed cruel to him, coming thus suddenly, when hope was so strong and the earth looked so bright. And how cruel it has seemed to me—the chance that took me from his side when that terrible moment was so near! How cruel that his dying eyes should not have looked on me, that he should not have felt my arms sustaining him! So hard has this seemed to me that I have thought little about you—of the agony of pain and suspense you suffered, of the strength and courage which enabled you to sustain him and yourself until it was all over."
She was crying now, and ceased speaking. She had not told, nor would she ever tell, the chief cause of the bitterness she felt at the circumstances attending her husband's death. It was because Fan, and no other, had been with him, sustaining him—Fan, who had always been depreciated by him, and treated so hardly at the last; for she could not remember that he had treated any other human creature with so little justice. It had been hard to endure when the girl they had left, hiding themselves from her, ashamed to know her, had found them in their depressed and suffering condition, only to heap coals of fire on their heads. Hard to endure that her husband seemed to have forgotten everything, and readily took every good thing from her hands, as if it had been only his due. But that final scene among the garden trees had seemed to her less like chance than the deliberately-planned action of some unseen power, that had followed them in all their wanderings, and had led the meek spirit they had despised to their hiding-place, to give it at last a full and perfect, yea, an angelic revenge.
After a while, drying her eyes, she resumed:
"But I particularly wish to speak about what you said this morning. I could not possibly go back to those East-End sketches of life—even the name of the paper I wrote them for is so painfully associated in my mind with all that Merton and I went through. I was struggling so hard—oh, so hard to keep our heads above water, and seemed to be succeeding. I was so hopeful that better days were in store for us, and the end seemed to come so suddenly ... and my striving had been in vain ... and the fight was lost. I know that I must rouse myself, that I have to work for a living, only just now I seem to have lost all desire to do anything, all energy. But I know, Fan, that this will not last. Grief for the dead does not endure long—never long enough. I must work, and there is nothing I shall ever care to do for a living except literary work. I have felt and shall feel again that a garret for shelter and dry bread for food would be dearer to me earned in that way than every comfort and luxury got by any other means. During the last day or two, while I have been sitting by myself, an idea has slowly been taking shape in my mind, which will make a fairly good story, I think, if properly worked out. But that will take time, and just now I could not put pen to paper, even to save myself from starving. For a little longer, dear, I must be contented to live on your charity."
"My charity, Constance! It was better a little while ago when you said that I had been like a very dear sister to you. But now you make me think that you did not mean that, that there is some bitterness in your heart because you have accepted anything at my hands."
"Darling, don't make that mistake. The word was not well-chosen. Let me say your love, Fan—the love which has fed and sheltered my body, and has done so much to sustain my soul."
And once more they kissed and were reconciled. From that day the improvement for which Fan had been waiting began to show itself. Constance no longer seemed strange and unlike her former self; and she no longer refused to go out for a walk every day. But she would not allow her walks with Fan to interfere with the latter's visits to Miss Starbrow. "She must be more to you than I can ever be," she would insist. "Well, dear, she cannot be less, and while she and you are in town it is only natural that you should be glad to see each other every day." And so after a walk in the morning she would persuade Fan to go later in the day to Dawson Place.
One evening as they sat together talking before going to bed, Fan asked her friend if she had written to inform Mrs. Churton of Merton's death.
"Yes," replied Constance. "A few days after his death I wrote to mother; it was a short letter, and the first I have sent since I wrote to tell her that I was married. She replied, also very briefly, and coldly I think. She expressed the hope that my husband had left some provision for me, so that she knows nothing about how I am situated."
After a while she spoke again.
"How strange that you should have asked me this to-night, Fan! All day I have been thinking of home, and had made up my mind to say something to you about it—something I wish to do, but I had not yet found courage to speak."
"Tell me now, Constance."
"I think I ought to write again and tell mother just how I am left, and ask her to let me go home for a few weeks or months. I have no wish to go and stay there permanently; but just now I think it would be best to go to her—that is, if she will have me. I think the quiet of the country would suit me, and that I might be able to start my writing there. And, Fan—you must not take offence at this—I do not think it would be right to live on here entirely at your expense. But if I should find it impossible to remain any time at home, perhaps I shall be glad to ask you to shelter me again on my return to town."
She looked into Fan's eyes, but her apprehensions proved quite groundless.
"I am so glad you have thought of your home just now," Fan replied. "Perhaps after all you have gone through it will be different with your mother. But, Constance, may I go with you?"
"With me! And leave Miss Starbrow?"
"Yes, I must leave her for a little while. I was going to ask you to go with me to the seaside for a few weeks, but it will be so much better at Eyethorne. Perhaps Mrs. Churton still feels a little offended with me, but I hope she will not refuse to let me go with you—if you will consent, I mean."
"There is nothing that would please me better. I shall write at once and ask her to receive us both, Fan."
"If you will, Constance; but I must also write and ask her for myself. I cannot go to live on them, knowing that they are poor, and I must ask her to let me pay her a weekly sum."
Constance reflected a little before answering.
"Do you mind telling me, Fan, what you are going to offer to pay? You must know that I can only go as my mother's guest, that if you accompany me you must not pay more than for one."
"Yes, I know that. I think that if I ask her to take me for about two guineas a week it will be very moderate. It costs me so much more now in London. And the money I am spending besides in cabs and finery—I am afraid, Constance, that I am degenerating because I have this money, and that I am forgetting how many poor people are in actual want."
The result of this conversation was that the two letters were written and sent off the following day.
In the afternoon Fan went to Dawson Place, and Mary received her gladly, but had no sooner heard of the projected visit to Wiltshire than a change came.
"You knew very well," she said, "that I wanted you to go with me to the seaside, or somewhere; and now that Mrs. Chance is going home you might have given a little of your time to me. But of course I was foolish to imagine that you would leave your friend for my society."
"I can't very well leave her now, Mary—I scarcely think it would be right."
"Of course it wouldn't, since you prefer to be with her," interrupted the other. "I am never afraid to say that I do a thing because it pleases me, but you must call it duty, or by some other fine name."
She got up and moved indignantly about the room, pushing a chair out of her way.
"I'm sorry you take it in that way," said Fan. "I was going to ask you to do something to please me, but after what you said have—"
"Oh, that needn't deter you," said Mary, tossing her head, but evidently interested. "If it would be pleasing to you I would of course do it. I mean if it would be pleasing to me as well. I am not quite so crazy as to do things for which I have no inclination solely to please some other person."
"Not even to please me—when we are such dear friends?"
"Certainly not, since our friendship is to be such a one-sided affair. If I had any reason to suppose that you really cared as much for me as you say, then everything that pleased you would please me, and I should not mind putting myself out in any way to serve you. Before I promise anything I must know what you want."
"Before I tell you, Mary, let me explain why I wish to go to Eyethorne. You know how Constance has been left, and that she is my guest. Well, I had meant to take her with me to the seaside for a few weeks when she said this about going home. It is the best thing she could do, but you know from what I have told you before that she cannot count on much sympathy from her parents, that she will perhaps be worse off under their roof than if she were to go among strangers. If all she has gone through since her marriage should have no effect in softening Mrs. Churton towards her, then her home will be a very sad place, and it is for this reason I wish to accompany her, for it may be that she will want a friend to help her. Don't you think I am right, Mary?"
"You must not ask me," said the other. "I shall not interfere with anything that concerns Mrs. Chance. She is your friend and not mine, and I would prefer not to hear anything about her. And now you can go on to the other matter."
"I can't very well do that, since it concerns Constance, and you forbid me to speak of her."
"Oh, it concerns Constance!" exclaimed Mary, and half averting her face to conceal the disappointment she felt. "Then I'm pretty sure that I shall not be able to please you, Fan. But you may say what you like."
Fan moved near to her—near enough to put her hand on the other's arm.
"Mary, it seems very strange and unnatural that you two—you and Constance—should be dear to me, and that you should not also know and love each other."
"You are wasting your words, Fan. I shall never know her, and we should not love each other. I have seen her once, and have no wish to see her again. Oil and vinegar will not mix."
"It is not a question of oil and vinegar, Mary, but of two women—"
"So much the worse—I hate women."
"Two women, both beautiful, both clever, and yet so different! Which do you think sweetest and most beautiful—rose or stephanotis?"
"Don't be a silly flatterer, Fan. She is beautiful, I know, because I saw her; and I was not mistaken when I knew that her beauty would enslave you."
"She was beautiful, Mary, and I hope that she will be so again. Now she is only a wreck of the Constance you saw at Eyethorne. But more beautiful than you she never was, Mary."
"Flattery, flattery, flattery!"
"Which of those two flowers are you like, and which is she like? Let me tell you what I think. You are most like the rose, Mary—that is to me the sweetest and most beautiful of all flowers."
Mary turned away, shaking the caressing hand off with a gesture of scorn.
"And I, Mary, between two such flowers, what am I?" continued Fan. "Someone once called me a flower, but he must have been thinking of some poor scentless thing—a daisy, perhaps."
"Say a heart's-ease, Fan," said Mary, turning round again to her friend with a little laugh.
"But I haven't finished yet. Both so proud and high-spirited, and yet with such loving, tender hearts."
"That is the most arrant nonsense, Fan. You must be a goose, or what is almost as bad, a hypocrite, to say that I have any love or tenderness in me. I confess that I did once have a little affection for you, but that is pretty well over now."
Fan laughed incredulously, and put her arms round her friend's neck.
"No," said the other resolutely, "you are not going to wheedle me in that way. I hate all women, I think, but especially those that have any resemblance to me in character."
"She is your exact opposite in everything," said Fan boldly. "Darling Mary, say that you will see her just to please me. And if you can't like her then, you needn't see her a second time."
Mary wavered, and at length said:
"You can call with her, if you like, Fan."
"No, Mary, I couldn't do that. You are both proud, but you are rich and she is poor—too poor to dress well, but too proud to take a dress as a present from me."
"Then, Fan, I shall make no promise at all. I am not going out of my way to cultivate the acquaintance of a person I care nothing about and do not wish to know merely to afford you a passing pleasure." After a while she added, "At the same time it is just possible that some day, if the fancy takes me, I may call at your rooms. If I happen to be in that neighbourhood, I mean. If I should not find you in so much the better, but you will not be able to say that I refused to do what you asked. And now let's talk of something else."
The words had not sounded very gracious, but Fan was well satisfied, and looked on her object as already gained. The discovery which she made, that she had a great deal of power over Mary, had moreover given her a strange happiness, exhilarating her like wine.
For the next two days Fan was continually on the tiptoe of expectation, shortening her walks for fear of missing Mary, and not going to Dawson Place, and still her friend came not. On the third day she came about three o'clock in the afternoon, when Fan by chance happened to be out.
Miss Starbrow, on hearing at the door that Miss Eden was not at home, considered for a few moments, and then sent up her card to Constance, who was greatly surprised to see it, for Fan had said nothing to make her expect such a visit. She concluded that it was for Fan, and that Miss Starbrow wished to wait or leave some message for her. In the sitting- room they met, Constance slightly nervous and looking pale in her mourning, and regarded each other with no little curiosity.
"I am sorry Fan is out," said Constance, "but if you do not mind waiting for her she will perhaps come in soon."
"I shall be glad to see her—she has forsaken me for the last few days. But I called to-day to see you, Mrs. Chance."
Constance looked surprised. "Thank you, Miss Starbrow, it is very kind of you," she answered quietly.
There was a slight shadow on the other's face; she had come only to please Fan, and was not at ease with this woman, who was a stranger to her, and perhaps resented her visit. Then she remembered that Constance had become acquainted with Merton Chance only through Fan's having seen him once at her house, reflecting with a feeling of mingled wonder and compassion that through so trivial a circumstance this poor girl's life had been so darkly clouded. They had sat for some moments in silence when Miss Starbrow, with a softened look in her eyes and in a gentler tone, spoke again.
"We have met only once before," she said, "and that is a long time ago, but I have heard so much of you from Fan that I cannot think of you as a stranger, and the change I see in you reminds me strongly of all you have suffered since."
"Yes, I suppose I must seem greatly changed," returned the other, not speaking so coldly as at first. Then, with a searching glance at her visitor's face, she added, "You knew my husband before I did, Miss Starbrow."
Ever since her marriage she had been haunted with the thought that there had been something more than a mere acquaintance between Merton and this lady. Her husband himself had given her that suspicion by the disparaging way he had invariably spoken of her, and his desire to know everything that Fan had said about her. That Fan had never told her anything was no proof that there was nothing to tell, since the girl was strangely close about some things.
"Yes," returned Miss Starbrow, noting and perhaps rightly interpreting the other's look. "He used occasionally to come to my house on Wednesday evenings. I never saw him except at these little gatherings, but I liked him very much and admired his talents. I was deeply shocked to hear of his death."
Constance dropped her eyes, which had grown slightly dim. "Your words sound sincere," she returned.
"That is a strange thing to say, I think," returned Miss Starbrow quickly. "It is not my custom to be insincere." And then her sincerity almost compelled her to add, "But about your late husband I have said too much." For that was what she felt, and it vexed her soul to have to utter polite falsehoods.
"I fear I did not express myself well," apologised Constance. "But I have grown a little morbid, perhaps, through knowing that the few friends I have, who knew my husband, had formed a somewhat disparaging and greatly mistaken opinion of him. I am sorry they knew him so little; but it is perhaps natural for us to think little of any man until he succeeds. What I meant to say was that your words did not sound as if they came only from your lips."
"Perhaps you are a little morbid, Mrs. Chance—forgive me for saying it. For after all what does it matter what people say or think about any of us? I dare say that if your husband had by chance invented a new button- hook or something, and had been paid fifty thousand pounds for the patent, or if someone had died and left him a fortune, people would have seen all the good that was in him and more."
"Yes, I suppose so. And yet it seems a cynical view to take. I should like to believe that it is not necessary to be wealthy, or famous, or distinguished in any way above my fellows, in order to win hearts—to make others know me as I know myself."
"Perhaps the view I took was cynical, Mrs. Chance. At all events, without being either wealthy or famous, you have won at least one friend who seems to know you well, and loves you with her whole heart."
Again Constance looked searchingly at her, remembering that old jealousy of her visitor, and not quite sure that the words had not been spoken merely to draw her out. And Mary guessed her thought and frowned again.
"Yes," quickly returned Constance, casting her suspicion away, "I have in Fan a friend indeed. A sweeter, more candid and loving spirit it would be impossible to find on earth. Not only does she greatly love, but there is also in her a rare faculty of inspiring love in those she encounters."
"Yes, I know that," said Mary, thinking how much better she knew it than the other, and of the two distinct kinds of love it had been Fan's fortune to inspire.
"I blame myself greatly for having kept away from her for so long," continued Constance. "But she is very tenacious. It has sometimes seemed strange to me that one so impressionable and clinging as she is should be so unchangeable in her affections."
"Yes, I think she is that."
"You have reason to think it, Miss Starbrow. You have, and always have had, the first place in her heart, and her feelings towards you have never changed in the least from the first."
"You wish to remind me that my feelings have changed, and that more than once," returned the other, with some slight asperity.
"No, please do not imagine that, Miss Starbrow. But it is well that you should know from me, since Fan will probably never tell it, that when that letter from you came to her at Eyethorne, the only anger she displayed was at hearing unkind words spoken of you."
"But who spoke unkind words of me?"
"You are certainly frank, Mrs. Chance."
"Am I too frank? I could not help telling you this; now that we have met again my conscience would not let me keep silence. I spoke then hastily, angrily, and, I am glad now to be able to confess, unjustly."
"That I cannot say, but I like you all the better for your frankness, and I hope that you will let me be your friend."
Constance turned her face, smiling and flushed with pleasure at the words; their eyes met, then their hands.
When Fan returned shortly afterwards she found them sitting side by side on the sofa, conversing like old and intimate friends, and it was a happy moment to her, as her heart had been long set on bringing them together. But she had little time to taste this new happiness; hardly had she kissed Mary and expressed her pleasure at seeing her, when the servant came up with a visitor's card, and the visitor himself quickly followed, and almost before Fan had read the name, Captain Horton was in the room. Constance, as it happened, knew nothing about him except that he was a friend of Fan's, whom he had met formerly at Miss Starbrow's house, but his sudden unexpected entrance had an almost paralysing effect on the other two. Fan advanced to meet him, but pale and agitated, and then Mary also rose from her seat, her face becoming livid, and seizing Fan by the arm drew her back; while the visitor, the smile with which he had entered gone from his face, stood still in the middle of the room, his eyes fixed on the white angry countenance before him.
For days past, ever since Fan's return to London after Merton's funeral, Mary had been impatiently waiting to hear this man's name spoken again— to hear Fan say favourable things of him, and plead for pardon; and because the wished words had not been spoken, she had felt secretly unhappy, and even vexed, with the girl for her silence. Again and again it had been on her lips to ask, "How are you getting on with that charming new friend of yours?" but for very shame she had held her peace. And now that the thing she had wished had come to her—that the man she had secretly pined to see was in her presence—all that softness she had lamented, or had pretended to herself to lament, was gone in one moment. For her first thought was that his coming at that moment had been prearranged, that Fan had planned to bring about the reconciliation in her own way; and that was more than she could stand. In time the reconciliation would have come, but as she would have it, slowly, little by little, and her forgiveness would be given reluctantly, not forced from her as it were by violence. Now she could only remember the treatment she had received at his hands—the insult, the outrage, and his audacity in thus coming on her by surprise stung and roused all the virago in her.
"Fan, I see it all now," she exclaimed, her voice ringing clear and incisive. "I see through the hypocritical reason you had for asking me to come here. But you will gain nothing by this mean trick to bring me and that man together. It was a plot between you two, and the result will be a breach between us, and nothing more."
Constance had also risen now, and was regarding them with undisguised astonishment.
"A plot, Mary! Oh, what a mistake you are making! I have not seen Captain Horton for weeks, and had no idea that he meant to call on me here. Your visit was also unexpected, Mary, and it surprised me when I came in and found you here a few minutes ago."
"Then I have made a mistake—I have done you an injustice and must ask your forgiveness. But you know, Fan, what I feel about Captain Horton, and that it is impossible for me to remain for a moment under the same roof with him, and you and Mrs. Chance must not think it strange if I leave you now."
"No, Miss Starbrow, you shall not cut your visit short on my account," said the Captain, speaking for the first time and very quietly. "I did not expect you here, and if my presence in the room for a few moments would be so obnoxious to you I shall of course go away."
"I am so sorry it has happened," said Fan.
But Miss Starbrow was not willing to let him depart before giving him another taste of her resentment. "Did you imagine, sir, that your presence could be anything but obnoxious to me?" she retorted. "Did you think I had forgotten?"
"No, not that," he replied.
"What then?" came the quick answer, the sharp tone cutting the senses like a lash.
He hesitated, glancing at her with troubled eyes, and then replied—"I thought, Miss Starbrow, that when you heard that I was trying to live down the past—trying very hard and not unsuccessfully as I imagined—it would have made some difference in your feelings towards me. To win your forgiveness for the wrong I did you has been the one motive I have had for all my strivings since I last saw you. That has been the goal I have had before me—that only. Latterly I have hoped that Miss Eden, who had as much reason to regard me with enmity as yourself, would be my intercessor with you. By a most unhappy chance we have met too soon, and I regret it, I cannot say how much; for you make the task I have set myself seem so much harder than before that I almost despair."
She made no reply, but after one keen glance at his face turned aside, and stood waiting impatiently, it seemed, for him to go.
He then expressed his regrets to Fan for having come without first writing to ask her permission, and after shaking hands with her and bowing to Constance, turned away. As he moved across the floor Fan kept her eye fixed on Mary's face, and seemed at last about to make an appeal to her, when Constance, standing by her side, and also observing Mary, touched her hand to restrain her.
"Captain Horton," spoke Mary, and he at once turned back from the door and faced her. "You have come here to see Miss Eden, and I do not wish to drive you away before you have spoken to her. I suppose we can sit in the same room for a few minutes longer."
"Thank you," he replied, and coming back took a seat at Fan's side.
Mary on her part returned to the sofa and attempted to renew her interrupted conversation with Constance. It was, however, a most uncomfortable quartette, for Captain Horton gave only half his attention to Fan, and seemed anxious not to lose any of Mary's low-spoken words; while Mary on her side listened as much or more to the other two as to Constance. In a few minutes the visitor rose to go, and after shaking hands a second time with Fan, turned towards the other ladies and included them both in a bow, when Constance stood up and held out her hand to him. As he advanced to her Mary also rose to her feet, as if anxious to keep the hem of her dress out of his way, and stood with averted face. From Constance, after he had shaken hands with her, he glanced at the other's face, still averted, which had grown so strangely white and still, and for a moment longer hesitated. Then the face turned to him, and their eyes met, each trying as it were to fathom the other's thought, and Mary's lips quivered, and putting out her hand she spoke with trembling voice—"Captain Horton—Jack—for Fan's sake—I forgive you."
"God bless you for that, Mary," he said in a low voice, taking her hand and bending lower and lower until his lips touched her fingers. Next moment he was gone from the room.
Mary dropped back on to the sofa, and covered her eyes with her hand: then Constance, seeing Fan approaching her, left the room.
"Dear Mary, I am so glad," said the girl, putting her hand on the other's shoulder.
But Mary started as if stung, and shook the hand off. "I don't want your caresses," she said, after hastily glancing round the room to make sure that Constance was not in it. "I am not glad, I can assure you. I was wrong to say that you had plotted to get me to meet him; it was not the literal truth, but I had good grounds to think it. All that has happened has been through your machinations. I should have gone on hating him always if you had not worked on my feelings in that way. You have made me forgive that man, and I almost hate you for it. If the result should be something you little expect—if it brings an end to our friendship—you will only have yourself to thank for it."
Fan looked hurt at the words, but made no reply. Mary sat for some time in sullen silence, and then rose to go.
"I can't stay any longer," she said. "I feel too much disgusted with myself for having been such a fool to remain any longer with you." Then, in a burst of passion, she added, "And that girl—Mrs. Chance—unless she is as pitifully meek and lamb-like as yourself, what a contemptible creature she must think me! Of course you have told her the whole delightful story. And she probably thinks that I am still—fond of him! It is horrible to think of it. For your sake I forgave him, but I wish I had died first."
Fan caught her by the hand. "Mary, are you mad?" she exclaimed. "Oh, what a poor opinion you must have of me if you imagine that I have ever whispered a word to Constance about that affair."
"Oh, you haven't!" said Mary beginning to smooth her ruffled plumes. "Well, I'm sorry I said it; but what explanations are you going to give of this scene? It must have surprised her very much."
"I shall simply tell her that you were deeply offended at something you had heard about Captain Horton, and had resolved never to see him again— never to forgive him."
"That's all very well about me; but he said in her hearing some rubbish about you being his intercessor, and that he had been as much your enemy as mine. What will you say about that?"
"Nothing. I'm not a child, Mary, to be made to tell things I don't wish to speak about. But you don't know Constance, or you would not think her capable of questioning me."
"Then, dear Fan, I must ask you again to forgive me. I ought to have known you better than to fear such a thing for a moment. But, Fan, you must make some allowance; it was so horrible trying to meet him in that way, and—my anger got the better of me, and one is always unjust at such times. They say," she added with a little laugh, "that an angry woman's instinct is always to turn and rend somebody, and after he had gone I had nobody but you to rend."
Her temper had suddenly changed; she was smiling and gracious and bright- eyed, and full of rich colour again.
"Then, Mary, you will stay a little longer and take tea with us?" said Fan quietly, but about forgiveness she said nothing.
Just then Constance came back to the room.
"Oh, Mrs. Chance," said Mary, "I have been waiting to say good-bye to you, and—to apologise to you for having made such a scene the first time we have been together. I am really ashamed of myself, but Fan will tell you"—glancing at the girl—"that I had only too good reason to be deeply offended with that—with Captain Horton. Fan wants me to stay to tea, but I will do so only on the condition that you both take tea with me at Dawson Place to-morrow afternoon."
Constance agreed gladly; Fan less gladly, which caused Mary to look searchingly at her. During tea she continued in the same agreeable temper, evidently anxious only to do away with the unpleasant impression she had made on Mrs. Chance by her disordered manner and language, which had contrasted badly with the Captain's quiet dignity.
Finally, when she took her departure, Fan, still strangely quiet and grave-eyed, accompanied her to the door. "Thank you so much for coming, Mary," she said, a little coldly. They were standing in the hall, and the other attentively studied her face for some moments.
"Are you still so deeply offended with me?" she said. "Can you not forgive me, Fan?"
"Not now, Mary," the other returned, casting down her eyes. "I can't forgive you just yet for treating me in that way—for saying such things to me. I shall try to forget it before to-morrow."
Mary made no reply, nor did she move; and Fan, after waiting some time, looked at her, not as she had expected, to find her friend's eyes fixed on her own, but to see them cast down and full of tears.
"I am sorry you are crying, dear Mary," she said, with a slight tremor in her voice. "But—it can make no difference—I mean just now. I feel that I cannot forgive you now."
"How unfeeling you are, Fan! Do you remember what you said the other night, that if I shut my door against you you would come and sit on the doorstep?"
"Yes, I remember very well."
"And it makes no difference?"
"No, not now."
"And I have so often treated you badly—so badly, and you have always been ready to forgive me. Shall I tell you all the wicked things I have done for which you have forgiven me?"
"No, you need not tell me. When you have treated me unkindly I have always felt that there was something to be said for you—that it was a mistake, and that I was partly to blame. But this is different. You said a little while ago that you turned on me, when you were angry with someone else, simply because I happened to be there for you to rend. That is what I thought too."
"If I were to go down on my knees to you, would you forgive me?" said Mary, with a slight smile, but still speaking with that unaccustomed meekness.
"No, I should turn round and leave you. I do not wish to be mocked at."
Mary looked at her wonderingly. "Dear child, I am not mocking, heaven knows. Will you not kiss me good-bye?"
Fan kissed her readily, but with no warmth, and murmured, "Good-bye, Mary."
And even after that the other still lingered a few moments in the hall, and then, glancing again at Fan's face and seeing no change, she opened the door and passed out.
Returned from her visit, Miss Starbrow appeared for a time to have recovered her serenity, and proceeded to change her dress for dinner, softly humming an air to herself as she moved about the room. "Poor Fan," she said, "how barbarous of me to treat her in that way—to say that I almost hated her! No wonder she refused to forgive me; but her resentment will not last long. And she does not know—she does not know." And then suddenly, all the colour fading from her cheeks again, she burst into a passion of weeping, violent as a tropical storm when the air has been overcharged with electricity. It was quickly over, and she dressed herself, and went down to her solitary dinner. After sitting for a few minutes at the table, playing with her spoon, she rose and ordered the servant to take the dinner away—she had no appetite. The lamps were lighted in the drawing-room, and for some time she moved about the floor, pausing at times to take up a novel she had been reading from the table, only to throw it down again. Then she would go to the piano, and without sitting down, touch the keys lightly. She was and she was not in a mood to play. She was not in voice, and could not sing. And at last she went away to a corner of the room which was most in shadow, and sat down on a couch, and covered her eyes with her hand to shut out the lamplight. "If he knew how it is with me to-night he would certainly be here," she said. "And then it would all be over soon. But he does not know—thank God!... Oh, what a fool I was to call him 'Jack'! That was the greatest mistake I made. But there is no help for it now—he knows what I feel, and nothing, nothing can save me. Nothing, if he were to come now. I wish he would come. If he knows that I am at his mercy why does he not come? No, he will not come. He is satisfied; he has got so much to-day—so much more than he had looked to get for a long time to come. He will wait quietly now for fear of overdoing it. Until Christmas probably, and then he will send a little gift, perhaps write me a letter. And that is so far off— three months and a half—time enough to breathe and think."
Just then a visitor's knock sounded loud at the door, and she started to her feet, white and trembling with agitation. "Oh, my God! he has come— he has guessed!" she exclaimed, pressing her hand on her throbbing breast.
But it was a false alarm. The visitor proved to be a young gentleman named Theed, aged about twenty-one, who was devoted to music and sometimes sang duets with her. She would have none of his duets to-night. She scarcely smiled when receiving him, and would scarcely condescend to talk to him. She was in no mood for talking with this immature young man —this boy, who came with his prattle when she wished to be alone. It was very uncomfortable for him.
"I hope you are not feeling unwell, Miss Starbrow," he ventured to remark.
"Feeling sick, the Americans say," she corrected scornfully. "Do I look it?"
"You look rather pale, I think," he returned, a little frightened.
"Do I?" glancing at the mirror. "Ah, yes, that is because I am out of rouge. I only use one kind; it is sent to me from Paris, and I let it get too low before ordering a fresh supply."
He laughed incredulously.
Miss Starbrow looked offended. "Are you so shortsighted and so innocent as to imagine that the colour you generally see on my face is natural, Mr. Theed? What a vulgar blowzy person you must have thought me! If I had such a colour naturally, I should of course use blanc de perle or something to hide it. There is a considerable difference—even a very young man might see it, I should think—between rouge and the crude blazing red that nature daubs on a milkmaid's cheeks."
He did not quite know how to take it, and changed the conversation, only to get snubbed and mystified in the same way about other things, until he was made thoroughly miserable; and in watching his misery she experienced a secret savage kind of pleasure.
No sooner had he gone than she sat down to the piano, and began singing, song after song, as she had never sung before—English, German, French, Italian—songs of passion and of pain—Beethoven's Kennst du das Land, and Spohr's Rose softly blooming, and Blumenthal's Old, Old Story, and then Il Segreto and O mio Fernando and Stride la vampa, and rising to heights she seldom attempted, Modi ab modi and Ab fors' e lui che l'anima; pouring forth without restraint all the long-pent yearing of her heart, all the madness and misery of a desire which might be expressed in no other way; until outside in the street the passers-by slackened their steps and lingered before the windows, wondering at that strange storm of melody. And at last, as an appropriate ending to such a storm, Domencio Thorner's Se solitaria preghi la sera—that perfect echo of the heart's most importunate feeling, and its fluctuatons, when plangent passion sinks its voice like the sea, rocking itself to rest, and nearly finds forgetful calm; until suddenly the old pain revives—the pain that cannot keep silence, the hunger of the heart, the everlasting sorrow—and swells again in great and greater waves of melody.
There could be no other song after that. She shut the piano with a bang, which caused the servants standing close to the door outside to jump and steal hurriedly away on tiptoe to the kitchen.
Only ten o'clock! How was she to get through this longest evening of her life? So early, but too late now to expect anyone; and as it grew later that faintness of her heart, that trembling of her knees, which had made her hold on to a chair for support—that shadow which his expected coming had cast on her heart—passed off, and she was so strong and so full of energy that it was a torture to her.
Alone there, shut up in her drawing-room, what could she do with her overflowing strength? She could have scaled the highest mountain in the world, and carried Mr. Whymper up in her arms; and there was nothing to do but to read a novel, and then go to bed. She rose and angrily pushed a chair or two out of the way to make a clear space, and then paced the floor up and down, up and down, like some stately caged animal of the feline kind, her lustrous eyes and dry pale lips showing the dull rage in her heart. When eleven struck she rang the bell violently for the servants to turn off the gas, and went to her room, slamming the doors after her. After partly undressing she sat pondering for some time, and then rose suddenly with a little laugh, and got her writing-case and took paper and pen, and sat herself down to compose a letter. "Your time has passed, Jack," she said. "I shall never make that mistake again. No, I shall not bide your time. I shall use the opportunity you have given me— poor fool!—and save myself. I shall write to Tom and confess my weakness to him, and then all danger will be over. Poor old Tom, I deserved all he said and more, and can easily forgive him to-night. And then, Captain Jack, you can 'God-bless-you-for-that-Mary' me as much as you like, and shed virtuous tears, and toil on in the straight and narrow path until your red moustache turns white; and all the angels in heaven may rejoice over your repentance if they like. I shall not rejoice or have anything more to do with you." But though the pen was dashed spitefully into the ink many times, the ink dried from it again, and the letter was not written; and at last she flung the pen down and went to bed.
There was no rest to be got there; she tossed and turned from side to side, and flung her arms about this way and that, and finding the bedclothes too oppressive kicked them off. At length the bedroom clock told the hour of twelve in its slow soft musical language. And still she tossed and turned until it struck one. She rose and drew aside the window-curtains to let the pale starlight shine into the room, and then going back to bed sat propped up with the pillows. "Must I really wait all that time," she said, "sitting still, eating my own heart—wait through half of September, October, November, December—only to put my neck under the yoke at last? Only to give myself meekly to one I shall never look upon, even if I look on him every hour of every day to the end of my days, without remembering the past? without remembering to what a depth I have fallen—despising myself without recalling all the hatred and the loathing I have felt for my lord and master! Oh, what a poor weak, vile thing I am! No wonder I hate and despise women generally, knowing what I am myself—a woman! Yes, a very woman—the plaything, the creature, the slave of a man! Let him only be a man and show his manhood somehow, by virtue or by vice, by god-like deeds or by crimes, be they black as night, and she must be his slave. Yes, I know, 'Hell has no fury like a woman scorned'; but did he know, Congreve, or whoever it was, what a poor contemptible thing that fury is? A little outburst of insanity, such as scores of miserable wretches experience any day at Hanwell, and are strapped down, or thrust into a padded room, have cold water dashed over them, until the fit is passed. No doubt she will do any mad thing while it lasts, things that no man would do, but it is quickly over, this contemptible short-lived fury; and then she is a woman again, ready to drag herself through the mire for her tyrant, ready to kiss the brutal hand that has smitten her—to watch and wait and pine and pray for a smile from the lying bestial lips, as the humble Christian prays for heaven! A woman—oh, what a poor thing it is!"
The clock struck two. The sound started her, and changed the current of her thoughts. "Even now it is not too late to write," she said. "The pillar-boxes are cleared at three o'clock, the letter would be re-posted to him to-morrow, and if he is in America he would get it in eight or nine days." She got out of bed, lit a candle, and sat down again to her letter, and this time she succeeded in writing it, but it was not the letter she had meant to write.
MY DEAR TOM [the letter ran],—If you are willing to let bygones be bygones I shall be very glad. I told you when we parted that I would never speak to you again, but I of course meant not until you made some advance and expressed sorrow for what you said to me; but I have altered my mind now, as I have a perfect right to do. At the same time I wish you to understand that I do not acknowledge having been in the wrong. On the contrary, I still hold, and always shall, that no one has any right to assume airs or authority over me, and dictate to me as you did. I should not suffer it from a husband, if I ever do such a foolish thing as to marry, certainly not from a brother. The others always went on the idea that they could dictate to me with impunity, but I suppose they see their mistake now, when I will not have anything to do with them, and ignore them altogether. You were always different and took my part, I must say, and I have never forgotten it, and it was therefore very strange to have you assuming that lofty tone, and interfering in my private affairs. For that is what it comes to, Tom, however you may try to disguise it and make out that it was a different matter. I do not wish to be unfriendly with you, as if you were no better than the other Starbrows; and I should be so glad if it could be the same as it was before this unhappy quarrel. For though I will never be dictated to by anyone about anything, it is a very good and pleasant thing to have someone in the world who is not actuated by mercenary motives to love and trust and confide in.
If you have recovered from the unbrotherly temper you were in by this time, and have made the discovery that you were entirely to blame in that affair, and as unreasonable as even the best of men can't help being sometimes, I shall be very glad to see you on your return to England.
I hope you are enjoying your travels, and that you find the Murracan language easier to understand, if not to speak, than the French or German; also I sincerely hope that one effect of your trip will be to make you detest the Yankees as heartily as I do.
Your loving Sister,
P.S.—Do not delay to come to me when you arrive, as I am most anxious to consult you about something, and shall also have some news which you will perhaps be pleased to hear. You will probably find me at home in London.
She had written the letter rapidly, and then, as if afraid of again changing her mind about it, thrust it unread into the envelope, and directed it to her brother's London agent, to be forwarded immediately. Then she went to the window and raised the sash to look out and listen. There was no sound at that hour except the occasional faintly-heard distant rattling of a cab. Only half-past two! What should she do to pass the time before three o'clock? Smiling to herself she went back to the table, and still pausing at intervals to listen, wrote a note to Fan.
Darling Fan,—I am so sorry—so very sorry that I grieved you to-day—I mean yesterday—with my unkind words, and again ask your forgiveness. I know that you will forgive me, dearest, and perhaps you forgave me before closing your eyes in sleep, for you must be sleeping now. But when I meet you to-morrow—I mean to-day—and see forgiveness in your sweet eyes, I shall be as glad as if I had hoped for no such sweet thing. Since I parted from you I have felt very unhappy about different things—too unhappy to sleep. It is now forty minutes past two, and if this letter is posted by three you will get it in the morning. I have my bedroom window open so as to hear if a policeman passes; but if one should not pass I will just slip an ulster over my nightdress and run to the pillar-box myself Good-night, darling—I mean good- morning.
P.S.—It has been raining, I fancy, as the pavement looks wet, and it seems cold too; but as a little penance for my unkindness to you, I shall run to the post with bare feet. But be not alarmed, child; if inflammation of the lungs carries me off in three weeks' time I shall not be vexed with you, but shall look down smilingly from the sky, and select one of the prettiest stars there to drop it down on your forehead.
That little penance was not required; before many minutes had elapsed the slow, measured, elephantine tread of the perambulating night-policeman woke the sullen echoes of Dawson Place, and if there were any evil-doers lurking thereabouts, caused them to melt away into the dim shadows. Taking her letters, a candle, and a shilling which she had in readiness, Miss Starbrow ran down to the door, opened it softly and called the man to her, and gave him the letters to post and the shilling for himself. And then, feeling greatly relieved and very sleepy, she went back to bed, and tossed no more.